Mulholland Drive at 20: David Lynchs cautionary tale about Hollywood nostalgia

Twenty years after its premiere, Mulholland Drive continues to puzzle viewers and critics alike. Dreams become nightmarish realities in director David Lynch’s modern masterpiece, which tells the story of an aspiring actor, Betty (Naomi Watts), who moves to Los Angeles and befriends Rita (Laura Harring), a woman suffering from amnesia after a car crash on Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

Mulholland Drive started life as an hour-long pilot, intended to launch a new TV series on ABC. However, executives decided against commissioning a full season, and instead the story was changed into a movie with additional footage being filmed. The results speak for themselves:  Lynch was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, the film received four Golden Globe nominations, and a critics poll heralded it as the best movie of the 21st Century (opens in new tab)

Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive

(Image credit: Universal)

Although a product of the early ’00s, Mulholland Drive is full of references to the so-called golden age of Hollywood – the first half of the 20th Century. Right off the bat, the movie opens with people in period dress jitterbug dancing, while veteran actors Ann Miller and Lee Grant, who were both working in the ’40s and ’50s, appear in the movie. The amnesiac Rita chooses a new name for herself after seeing a poster for Gilda, the 1946 noir movie starring Rita Hayworth.

As well as the uncanny period feel, there’s so much more that’s not as it seems. Betty is not really Betty, and Rita is not really Rita – or are they? The movie is anything but straightforward in its narrative, with dreams and reality overlapping. In typical Lynch fashion, the director has repeatedly refused to provide any explanation for the unanswered questions the film presents, so the true nature of Watts’ and Harring’s characters’ double (or not) identities is up to the viewer to decide.

Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive

(Image credit: Universal)

Meanwhile, Hollywood, so full of possibility for Betty at the start of the movie, loses its sheen by the final act, and Mulholland Drive ends tragically. There’s a sense of unease there from the beginning, and as much as this film pays tribute to Hollywood’s past, homaging noir movies of years gone by, it’s a cautionary tale about nostalgia – and that remains a rarity.

If Hollywood loves anything, it’s stories about Hollywood. Two titles from recent years jump out as obvious examples of Hollywood-centric narratives: 2016’s La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle (whose next movie, Babylon, is another love letter to Hollywood) and 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive

(Image credit: Universal)

For Lynch’s protagonists, however, there are no happy endings. Dreams and reality are nightmarishly entangled for Betty and Rita

La La Land, while set in the present day, pays homage to classic musicals of the ’50s and follows Mia (Emma Stone), another aspiring yet unsuccessful actor. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood centres on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick, living through the ‘60s and an established actor who fears he is past his prime.

Despite both films featuring somewhat disillusioned, jaded protagonists, the movie’s still view Tinseltown with rose-tinted glasses. Mia may not get the ending she envisioned with her boyfriend Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), but things work out for her in the end. Rick, meanwhile, gets his moment of heroism, saving the day at the end of the movie – and even re-writing history in the process.

For Lynch’s protagonists, however, there are no happy endings. Dreams and reality are nightmarishly entangled for Betty and Rita, in a way that’s frustrating for them and for the viewer – there is no traditional ending to satisfy an audience. Lynch pays tribute to classical Hollywood while throwing convention out the window, and more directors should follow suit.


For more viewing inspiration, check out our list of the best Oscar-winning movies of all time.

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